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Hideo Nakata's 1998 horror film Ringu is an important player in the "J-horror" genre, and also can be credited with bringing that term into the American lexicon. A smash hit in Japan that spawned several sequels and an American remake, the film now receives an excellent Blu-ray release from Arrow Video. The story remains familiar to fans of this Japanese film and the 2002 Hollywood remake: Once watched, the video tape of bizarre imagery at the heart of the film seemingly seals the death of its viewer in seven days. The film is a cautionary tale of sorts on society's overreliance on technology, and mirrors the clash of modern culture with traditional Japanese values. Nakata does not rely on blood and gore to frighten viewers, and instead creates a moody, slow-burning thriller in which viewers investigate the mysterious video alongside the film's heroine. Twenty-one years in, Ringu remains a successful horror import, and fans will appreciate this new release.
In the opening scene, two high school girls discuss a videotape bearing a curse that results in the death of anyone who views it within seven days. One of the girls reveals that she and some friends watched the tape and received a frightening telephone call afterward. She then wanders downstairs to the kitchen and sees a television turn on by itself. She is soon attacked by an offscreen presence and killed. The girl's aunt, Keiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima), an investigative reporter, has heard about the supposedly cursed video and decides to trace its origins. She travels to a cabin in Izu where her niece stayed with friends and discovers an unlabeled videocassette at the reception desk. Keiko views the video of bizarre images and immediately receives a staticky phone call, and, fearing her own death, contacts her ex-husband, Ryuji Takayama (Hiroyuki Sanada), to aid in her investigation. The path takes them to a nearby island, where they discover evidence of deception and murder.
Like most Americans, I saw the Naomi Watts-led remake first, which is a very good horror film, too. The remake is a bit moodier, with a few more jump scares, and the story is a bit less complicated than in Ringu, which involves elements of Japanese mythology and character drama. This original is quite effective, and the film's warnings about omnipresent technology are even more relevant today. This story was adapted by Hiroshi Takahashi from a novel by Koji Suzuki, and was originally adapted in a 1995 made-for-television version. There is plenty of unsettling imagery here - ghostly figures, contorted faces and forgotten landscapes - but Ringu is less concerned with cheap, quick scares than it is building toward a memorable climax.
That Ringu plays out like a detective procedural with supernatural and horror elements is one of its best attributes. The 96-minute feature is a lot slower burn than most modern horror films, but Ringu offers relevant exposition and a rich, unsettling narrative to keep viewers guessing. The Japanese franchise is an example of diminishing returns, and its ghostly antagonist Sadako (Rie Ino) even got pitted against Kayako of fellow J-horror Ju-on (The Grudge) franchise in a Freddy vs. Jason-style showdown last year. That said, this original Ringu offers strong performances, unsettling visuals and a satisfying narrative to complement its horror elements. The story is relatively straightforward, but the implications of a faceless, non-discriminating curse are universally frightening.
The film was released on DVD to coincide with the American remake's home video release, but this Arrow Video edition is the first U.S. Blu-ray release in the U.S. The film was restored by Arrow in conjunction with the filmmakers, and the results are extremely impressive, particularly given the lack of proper restoration on many Japanese films. The 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image appears filmic, with natural, properly resolved grain. The level of detail is often excellent, particularly in close-ups, which reveal intimate facial features. Landscapes are deep and lush, and the textures in fabrics and scenery are readily apparent. Skin tones appear natural, highlights are nicely resolved and colors are expertly saturated. The film is appropriately drab in its colors, but black levels are inky, offering abundant shadow detail. Gone are the DVD's murky, low-light visuals and compression artifacts, and in their place you find a crisp, clean and very impressive HD presentation.
The disc includes both 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 LPCM mixes in Japanese. The surround mix is especially effective in creating an unsettling atmosphere, and subtle ambient and horror effects, like wind, footsteps and crowd noise, surround the viewer. Action effects and more pronounced horror beats make use of the entire sound field. The LFE is called upon when appropriate, and the score is weighty and nicely balanced with effects and dialogue. That dialogue is crisp and never distorted or crowded. English subtitles appear to be appropriately translated.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release arrives in a thick, clear case with two-sided artwork and a booklet of images and text. Bonus features include a newly recorded Audio Commentary by David Kalat, who has written about Ringu and other J-horror films. This is a very interesting and informative track. The Ring Legacy (27:34/HD) sees numerous participants discuss the film and its impact, and A Vicious Circle (21:12/HD) is an interview with Kat Ellinger, a horror blogger. Circumventing The Ring (24:56/HD) is a video essay that deconstructs some of the series' mythology; Sadako's Video (0:50/HD) is the curse video in full; and you also get some Trailers (4:07/HD) and an Image Gallery.
Arrow Video releases another excellent, feature-packed edition of a horror film here. Ringu sparked the J-horror phenomenon that made its way to America in the form of a number of remakes. This 1998 film from Hideo Nakata about a killer videotape offers an unsettling atmosphere, satisfying narrative, relevant themes and effective horror elements. Arrow's disc offers an excellent technical presentation and worthy bonus materials. Highly Recommended.
William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.